At a small roundabout facing the old Federal Secretariat in Obalende, Lagos, is an almost inconspicuous artwork designed in the form of a military epaulette bearing the rank of a general. For those familiar with it, it is a cenotaph, commissioned 24 years ago at the spot of the gruesome act, to commemorate the assassination of Nigeria’s third military president, General Murtala Muhammed. On the way to work on the morning of February 13, 1976, without adequate security detail (a result of personal modesty), the then thirty-eight year old head-of-state with a reform agenda was shot and killed in a coup attempt.
Those unfamiliar with the story will only notice the spot as a weird anomaly at a roundabout between a fuel station and the old Federal Secretariat. Worn by time and a poor maintenance culture, the object merely (and barely) puts up a dignified presence where the intention must have been a bold and defiant resistance to the memory of terror. The plaques describing its purpose are broken and dirty, the lawn around the object is barely tended, and the object itself seemed needing of a face lift at worst, or an upgrade at worst.
This is not a peculiar problem to this location. A few miles from here, at the Onikan premises of the National Museum, the Mercedes Benz car in which the president was assassinated lay within the dusty corridors of a poorly maintained room. The bullet holes and the caked dried blood from the gruesome event can be seen (and touched), providing at least some relief to a museum without any other redeeming quality. Original artworks that used to be housed in there have either been stolen and sold, or given, in a fit of subservient generosity, to foreign sovereign.
On one of the four sides of the base on which the epaulette and two gun replicas stand is the inscription: “The Cenotaph erected by Eti-Osa Local Government in honour of Late General Murtala Muhammed on the spot where he was assassinated on the 13th of February, 1976, was commissioned by the president and commander in chief of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida CFR, FSS, MNI, on the 13th of February, 1992. On the others are quotes attributed to the late head of state. One of them reads: “As true Nigerians, we must at all times put the national interest above all considerations.”
We could do with some of that.